WRI 207: Everyone's an Expert

Keith Shaw
Fall 2021
T/TH 3:00pm-4:20pm

Shortly after Russian soldiers occupied part of Ukraine in 2014, a Washington Post poll asked whether the U.S. should respond with force, thereby risking war with a nuclear power. There was a twist: respondents were also asked to locate Ukraine on a map. Only one in six Americans could do so, but this did not deter strong opinions. Indeed, the poll found “the less people know about where Ukraine is located…the more they want the U.S. to intervene militarily.” This finding, a dangerous example of social psychology’s Dunning-Kruger effect, highlights the common phenomenon of absolute certainty grounded in stunning ignorance. This Writing Seminar explores the relationships between conviction and knowledge, specialization and common sense, to define what expertise is and how we recognize it in ourselves and others. We begin with a Princeton icon, Albert Einstein, who leveraged his expert reputation in 1939 to prod FDR to develop the atomic bomb. We then examine the democratic implications of cognitive biases that erode our use of expertise, using in-progress case studies like Covid vaccination, the 2020 election and the “Big Lie,” and the renewed culture war over teaching race in American history. We conclude with a research argument embedded in the academic field in which students plan to become experts themselves.

Everyone's an Expert is unique among Writing Seminars in being customized for Princeton’s transfer students. It asks students to identify and articulate the fruits of their previous writing instruction while adapting those hard-won skills for their work at Princeton, with its emphasis on independent research embedded in a scholarly field, culminating in the senior thesis. The 207 curriculum requires students to test drive the work of a practicing scholar, while making allowances for the still-to-come disciplinary expertise that will be cultivated in their concentration. As part of their research work, students will be paired with a graduate student mentor in or near their chosen field of study. This mentor will not only provide discipline-specific guidance in their research work in Everyone's an Expert, but help their students imagine how their project could be adapted and developed if they were to pursue further work in the field.

This course fulfills the university writing requirement for transfer students.